Saturday, January 29, 2011

Beethoven, Sibelius, and Nielsen: "New" music at the New York Philharmonic

This weekend's New York Philharmonic concerts featured works by Sibelius and Nielsen that the orchestra hasn't performed in years, if at all.  There was Beethoven too, if you like hearing music you've heard dozens of times before.  (Not that I have any problems with Beethoven -- I love the guy -- but it's wonderful to hear something unfamiliar now and then.)  The music wasn't unfamiliar to me, though; I played the two Beethoven works and the Nielsen symphony with NYRO several years ago.

The concert opened with Beethoven's Symphony No. 8 in F.  I would call it a boisterous reading, with great work from the two horns in the third movement, excellent attention to dynamics (especially the recapitulation in the first movement, when the upper strings and winds play fortississimo and drown out the melody in the cellos) and I especially enjoyed watching the timpanist playing like mad on three drums at the end of the piece.  (Although there's only two drums in the score, so I don't know what he was doing, but it looked amazing from where I sat.)

A smaller Philharmonic came onstage for Beethoven's concert aria "Ah, perfido!"  Soprano Karita Mattila brought the singer's words to life, portraying a scorned woman going through a variety of emotions through ten minutes of music.  Music Director Alan Gilbert kept the orchestra out of her way, but also brought out the woodwinds when their lines and Mattila's intersected and complemented each other.

After intermission, the Philharmonic and Mattila performed three songs by Jean Sibelius.  I'd never heard these songs before (and neither had New York audiences -- two of the three had never been performed by the Philharmonic before, and the third one not since 1965) but they were unmistakably Sibelius.  I'd know those harmonies anywhere.  Once again, Mattila's voice was perfect for this music.

Finally, the Philharmonic marshaled all of its forces for Carl Nielsen's Symphony No. 2, "The Four Temperaments."  I've noted before in this space that Nielsen's music is not as popular here as it would seem to deserve.  I hope that's changing.  In the program notes, Gilbert wrote of his love for Scandinavian music (from his years as music director of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra) and his puzzlement at the lack of exposure to Nielsen's works.  He wrote that he plans to program all of Nielsen's symphonies over the next few years, which excites me as a musician and a fan.  The last time the Philharmonic had played Nielsen's 2nd was in 1973, shortly before I was born.  That's too long.

The first movement was crisp and stormy, with the winds and brass completely on point with short, loud blasts.  The second movement, with its languid phrases, put some of the people around me to sleep.  The ones who weren't sleeping applauded between movements, which baffled me.  Who are these people?  We don't clap between movements here!  Yes, I'm a stickler for concert etiquette.  The third movement, representing melancholia, was moving and powerful.  I just adore the long brass and string melodies in this movement, and the orchestra played them beautifully.  The last movement was spirited and bold and brought the concert to a close that the audience really seemed to appreciate.  I felt sorry for the few patrons I saw leaving at intermission.  What a treat they missed!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Another crazy ride on Amtrak

I don't have a great record with Amtrak and the regional trains to Maryland over the past few years.  In October 2009 I had a long delay for "police activity" and a sick passenger in Wilmington, DE.  Then in December 2009 Penn Station lost power to the tracks for several hours, turning a three-hour trip into an all-day ordeal.  These problems are unusual, but what's not unusual is that the regional trains are routinely late or delayed for reasons unknown.  And I had another such experience this past Friday night.

I was supposed to take a 6:20 PM train from Penn Station to New Carrollton, MD, arriving at 9:20 PM.  When I got to Penn Station at 5:45 my train was already 30 minutes delayed.  Five minutes later the delay increased to 50 minutes.  The PA announcer said that our train would be in the station and ready for boarding by 7:10 PM.  I called my dad and told him that I'd be at least an hour late.  We boarded the train a few minutes after 7, but we did not leave on time.  As we sat on the platform at Penn Station the train conductor read what sounded like the entire information sheet for the train, covering oft-unmentioned items such as "there are bathrooms in each train car,""don't ride in the vestibules," "a wide variety of snacks are available in the cafe car," and "we hope you are having a lovely evening in New York and we apologize for the delay."  A woman across the aisle from me asked to no one in particular "when are we leaving?"

We finally departed around 7:30 PM.  Arriving at Newark, NJ a few minutes later, we sat at the platform there for at least five minutes, which was about four minutes longer than usual.  Around 9 PM, outside of Trenton, the lights went out in the train and we ground to a halt.  The train conductor said we'd lost power and that the engineers were trying to fix the problems but until they could do so, we were "dead in the water."  I started to get a bad feeling about the whole trip as I remembered another Amtrak train stuck on the tracks between Philadelphia and Baltimore during the December blizzard.  Another conductor came into our car to apologize for the delay and to tell us that we had a "helper engine" on the way to rescue us.  The power came back on a few times, only to go off again a few minutes later.  I tried to read my book by flashlight and not think about how bad things could get.  I'd had dinner, I had used the bathroom before the power went off, and I had several warm layers in my bag.

My fellow passengers were not as outwardly calm as I was.  The woman across from me continued her running commentary, possibly on her phone, though I think she was just talking to herself.  When the conductor apologized again and suggested that we call 1-800-USA-RAIL with any complaints, a man a few rows up called them.  He demanded action on this stalled train issue and wanted a full refund.  Apparently, they told him to call back once he reached his destination.  I don't think that was the answer he wanted.

The aforementioned helper engine appeared around 9:45 PM and towed us to Philadelphia.  The conductor told us that they would change engines in Philadelphia, requiring another delay.  Or we had the option of changing to the next Washington, DC-bound train when it arrived on the opposite platform.  But Amtrak didn't say how long the engine change would take.  The chatty woman said "I ride these trains every day.  An engine change takes a half hour or 45 minutes.  I'm leaving."  Everyone in my car began packing their belongings, except for the young couple behind me.  She and I had been discussing Infinite Jest and I considered staying where I was, since I was comfortable, already late and whoever was going to pick me up in New Carrollton would have to stay up anyway.  But when the next train appeared, the car emptied out except for this couple.  She said to her boyfriend "we'll have the car to ourselves.  We can make out."  I smiled at them and said "Now I'm switching trains.  Have a good night."  I found a seat on the other train and a few minutes later we were on our way.   I wonder how long it was before that train moved.

I arrived in New Carrollton at about 12:30 AM, over three hours late.  My girlfriend (who had driven all the way from Ohio for the weekend) met me at the station, and after the ordeal I'd been through she was a most welcome sight.  In retrospect, it wasn't the worst time I'd ever had on a train, but it wasn't any fun at all.  I don't think it's too much to ask that for my $150 I get to my destination as close to on-time as possible.  Three hours is definitely not close to on time.

Some of my friends suggested that I take the Acela next time, saying that the regional trains are always unreliable.  While the Acela doesn't seem to stop at New Carrollton, I might be able to manage going to Baltimore or BWI or even Union Station instead if I could work out the schedules.  So rather than abandon Amtrak entirely, I'll give that a try next time.  Otherwise I might take advantage of one of those rental car deals that keep popping up in my e-mail.  Or one of those DC buses that are ridiculously cheap.  But I think I'm done with the regional trains for a while.

Monday, January 24, 2011

See you in Dallas in two weeks...

I hope this feeling of excitement never gets old.  The Pittsburgh Steelers are back in the Super Bowl for the third time in six seasons.  Six years ago I could only hope that this team would make it back to the championship game after a long drought.  Now, with two rings and another within our grasp, I'm just as giddy as I was in 2006 and 2009.  I can't believe I'm going to watch the Steelers play the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV in Dallas in two weeks.

I watched Sunday's AFC Championship game in Maryland with my family, as I owed them a visit after missing them at Christmas.  My stepmother and I screamed at the TV on almost every play, which was more screaming than might have been completely necessary.  As we built a seemingly insurmountable 24-3 lead before halftime, we all dared to dream about what we'd do for the Super Bowl: where we'd watch the game, who would travel, and so on. I tried to keep calm.  There's plenty of football left.  I took comfort from CBS's note that the Steelers led the Broncos 24-0 in the AFC Championship in 2006 and went on to win.

Then the New York Jets came out after halftime and cut the lead to 24-10 and ultimately to 24-19.  My heart was pounding (although that might have been from the giant sandwich and metric ton of seven layer dip I'd consumed in the 1st quarter).  I watched the clock tick down, moving far too slowly. Like the Patriots did last week, the Jets took their time marching down the field in the 4th quarter.  With 3 minutes left, they kicked off deep instead of kicking it onside (my greatest fear at that point was that they'd recover an onside kick).  I kept thinking “one more first down. Just one.”  The Jets used up their timeouts before the 2-minute warning.  One more first down was all we needed.  And when Ben Roethlisberger hit Antonio Brown for those precious few yards, my dad said “that's the game!” and I laughed and stood up and waved my Terrible Towels (I have two now) and everyone thought I was going to cry.  Ike Taylor threw his hands in the air, Rex Ryan threw his headset, and the Steelers kneeled to seal the game.

Now we move on to Dallas and the Packers.  Green Bay is a solid, dangerous team and I am not about to underestimate them.  The Steelers have experience on both offense and defense and a coaching staff that knows what it's like to play on the game's biggest stage.  I'd like to think those are advantages, but New Orleans came into last year's game against Indianapolis and proved that they could beat a talented quarterback and a recent Super Bowl champion.  Green Bay will not let Pittsburgh have a 24-0 lead by halftime.  We are in for a fight in two weeks.  We played these Packers on my birthday last year (a game I was supposed to attend until a snowstorm kept me in New York) and we only beat them at the last minute.  These are two evenly matched teams.  I think it's going to be a great game.  I'm thrilled to be a part of it.

One more thing: my superstitions might be getting out of control.  When I'm at home by myself, I wear my Steelers shirt, a Harrison jersey, carry two Terrible Towels, and I make chili (and watch the game from the kitchen sometimes) and that usually leads to victory.  Since I was at my dad's house, I couldn't make chili or watch the game from the kitchen.  Instead of ignoring my superstition for the foolishness that it is, I came up with a new one.  We all stayed seated for for most of the first half as we were eating and drinking, and the Steelers looked like world-beaters.  In the second half, my brother and his girlfriend got up to get drinks and dessert and spent a few minutes in the kitchen.  The Jets scored a touchdown.  Then my brother got up to get another drink in the 4th quarter and the Jets got a safety.  I realized that we'd been in our seats in the first half and the Steelers had played well.  I nearly ordered everyone to sit where they'd been sitting in the first half, because who knew if that had been helping the team?  I tweeted that I was threatening to tie everyone to their chairs.  My father had to use the bathroom and waited until the 2-minute warning to get up.  OK, I felt a little bad about that one.  But a trip to the Super Bowl was on the line!  You do whatever it takes to help the team.

I will try to calm down a bit for the Super Bowl, but it's going to be tremendously difficult. We're going for our seventh championship. I need to remember that nothing I do can affect the way the Steelers play. Except for what I wear, and where I watch the game, and where I hang my Steelers banner, and what I eat....

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

My computer is like an old car

When I was growing up, my mom used to talk about how her cars would always start to fall apart just when they were out of warranty.  I'm not sure if that was really the case, but it did seem that her Datsun 310 had more problems at the end of its five-year warranty than ever before.  Of course, she drove that car everywhere and it was on its third clutch by the time we traded it in for a Toyota Corolla in 1986.  Nevertheless, her words have come back to me the past few months as my Macbook Pro nears the end of its three-year warranty.

When I invested in this computer in February 2008, I knew it wouldn't last forever.  I always assumed it would hold up for about three years and then I'd buy another one.  But I didn't think its demise would be so obvious.  My Windows desktop PCs always deteriorated gradually.  Each one needed a new hard drive sometime in its lifespan, but other than that entire components didn't just fail out of nowhere.  They just started performing slower and slower until I couldn't take it anymore and bought a new desktop PC.

However, the MacBook Pro has declined in marked stages.  One evening in October it refused to come out of sleep mode or boot up.  A two-night stay at the Apple Store in midtown Manhattan resulted in a new logic board (which I assume is the motherboard).  A few weeks later I noticed that the keyboard and touchpad would stop working periodically.  They usually came back after a reboot, but by mid-December the problem was serious enough that I took it to the Genius Bar at the Apple Store in Chelsea.  That was a three-day stay (and a trip back to the mothership in Houston) for a new "top case" of a keyboard and touchpad.  I got the laptop back a few days before Christmas and it was great to have a fresh keyboard and non-worn-out touchpad, plus a fully functional 9 key.  But I suspected that something else would break sooner rather than later.

A few days ago I opened the laptop and saw that the speaker icon in the status bar was grayed out.  When I tried to play music I didn't hear anything.  System Preferences claimed that the internal speakers weren't there.  I plugged in headphones and external speakers and they worked, so the audio system itself was OK.  After a reboot my internal speakers came back.  But now they're not working again.

I'm wondering if it's worth the trouble of taking it back to the Genius Bar again in the next few weeks before the warranty runs out.  I suppose it is; if it's possible to fix the problem for free, I should do it.  Once the warranty is up I'm not getting anything fixed.  And I'm planning to buy a new MacBook Pro later this year when Apple refreshes their laptop lineup.  I just need to hold out until later this spring and hope that nothing else happens to this computer.  And I need to keep getting regular backups.  You never know when you'll lose a hard drive.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Mozart, Mahler, and Adès at the New York Philharmonic

Friday night's New York Philharmonic concert featured music director Alan Gilbert at the podium once again.  If that wasn't enough of a draw for me, the program of Mozart's Symphony No. 40, Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, and the New York premiere of a new piano concerto by Thomas Adès pulled me in.  

I don't remember the last time I heard Mozart's 40th Symphony in concert.  It's such a well-known work that it's possible I haven't ever heard it performed live before.  Gilbert led the orchestra in a lively, exciting, and, dare I say it, ferocious reading of the work.  The first movement was energetic and forceful, highlighting the power of Mozart at his most emotional.  In the second movement, I liked the balance of the winds and the strings.  I heard suspensions in the harmonies that I've never noticed before.  The minuet and trio were well-played, with lovely work from principal horn Phil Myers, and the finale, marked "Allegro assai" was nearly a "Vivace."  The fury with which the strings played their runs and tossed the melodic lines back and forth gave me chills.

Baritone Thomas Hampson took the stage for Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, a song cycle of poems written by Friedrich Rückert after the deaths of his two children from scarlet fever.  Mahler took five of the 428 poems and set them to wrenching, heartbreaking music.  I'd seen Hampson in concert with the Philharmonic on TV, and his voice was even more impressive in person.  He took Mahler's tragic melodies and brought them to life.  I could feel the pain of the poet, lamenting the demise of his daughter as he remembered her running into a room after his wife.  The words and music painted a truly affecting picture.

After intermission, Gilbert and composer (and soloist) Thomas Adès took the stage and talked to the audience about this new concerto.  Gilbert asked Adès how the piece and the images that accompanied it (projected on a screen above the orchestra) had come about.  Adès worked with Tal Rosner, an Israeli visual artist, to create the concerto and the images together, each using the other's work as inspiration.  The result was a musical tableaux of the seven days of Creation, with abstract images that moved along with the rhythm of the music.  I enjoyed the visual effects, and it's clear that Rosner is a skilled artist in his own right.  But I also thought that the images distracted me from the music.  There were some really complex and enthralling things going on with the music and I wasn't able to focus on them with the images floating above the orchestra.  The music was at times jangly, atonal, dissonant, but then there were serene moments of shimmering tonic chords from the strings and brass.  I'd like to hear the music without the images to get a better sense of what Adès was trying to say.  But once again I enjoyed the Philharmonic's effort to get New York audiences interested in contemporary classical composition.  They got me in the door with Mozart and Mahler, and I was all too happy to stick around to see what Adès had to offer.   And I was not disappointed.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

The Pro Football Hall of Fame

One of the good things about dating someone who lives in a state that I haven't visited extensively is the opportunity for me to be a tourist.  On New Year's Eve, my girlfriend and I went to Canton, OH to visit the one and only Pro Football Hall of Fame.  The pilgrimage was her idea, as she'd never been there either.  We're both Steelers fans, and yet we both neglected to wear anything remotely football-related (unlike most of the other people at the Hall that day, many of whom wore football jerseys or shirts).

The first stop on the tour is the history of the pro game.  There are exhibits of old uniforms and protective equipment and features on early professional teams.  Other panels and displays trace the development of the NFL and its merger with the AFL in the late 1960s.  Next, there's a section dedicated to the NFL's 32 teams, with helmets and team records and facts.  Famous Detroit product Jerome Bettis gets the honor of representing the Steelers.

The next room is the heart of the Hall, with the well-known bronze busts of all the honorees.  I couldn't resist taking pictures of all of my favorite players and coaches (the Hall has a liberal photo policy).  Touchscreen computer displays help you find your favorite Hall members and show highlights and interview clips.  Terry Bradshaw's interview, which must have been filmed for his induction in 1989, shows him wishing for one more chance to run a two-minute drill in a Super Bowl with all of his players.  He says "I could still play two minutes."  I love Bradshaw more than any other former NFL great, but even in 1989 he'd have had a hard time running a few plays.  Other exhibits in the Hall show highlights from past Super Bowls and feature memorabilia from current NFL players.  I liked the exhibit panels for other leagues, like the now-defunct WLAF.  (Scottish Claymores forever!)

The final stop on the tour is the Hall's theater, playing "The Road To The Super Bowl."  I hoped the film would be a retrospective on past Super Bowls, or show how tough it is to get through an entire season and win a championship.  While we waited for the theater to open, video screens on the ramp showed training camp footage from past seasons.  It was fun to see now-fired coaches hollering at their players.  The movie started with playoff highlights from last year, then the theater rotated 180 degrees to show a larger screen on which we saw the NFL Films' reel from Super Bowl XLIV.  We watched as New Orleans beat the Indianapolis Colts, with all the miked-up hits and cheers reverberating around us at top volume.  It wasn't bad at all, but the film made me wish I'd visited the Hall last year so I could have seen the Steelers' victory over the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.

The Hall has plans to expand further, and some of the displays (especially the history of pro football) are low-tech and antiquated and could use some modernization.  I'd like to go back in five or ten years and see how the Hall has updated their exhibits.  And I'm sure that a decade from now they'll have busts of more former Steelers for me to fawn over.  I like this idea.